Sales of lower-calorie products grow at supermarkets

by Jeff Gelski
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Cereals with 150 calories or less and beverages with 50 calories or less qualified as lower-calorie products.

PRINCETON, N.J. – Lower-calorie products are taking up a majority of sales and sales growth in the nation’s supermarkets, according to a study released June 9 by the Hudson Institute. The study also found more growth could come from lower-calorie products in categories that contribute the most calories to children’s diets.

Researchers analyzed Nielsen Scantrack data from 2009 and 2013 for three retail ownership groups that account for about 45% of the U.S. supermarket industry. The study found lower-calorie product sales accounted for 58.6% of total sales and 58% of sales growth when compared to higher-calorie products. Sales growth from 2009 to 2013 was 18.1% for lower-calorie products and 17.3% for higher-calorie products.

To determine whether a product was lower calorie or higher calorie, researchers set dividing lines for each of the 202 food and beverage categories. For example, cereals with 150 calories or less and beverages with 50 calories or less qualified as lower-calorie products.

The Hudson Institute also broke out the results into three subsets: product categories that contribute the most calories to children’s diets (which does not mean products only designed for and marketed to children); supermarkets found in “food deserts;” and private label.

Such categories as grain-based desserts, caloric beverages, pastas and pizzas contribute the most calories to children’s diets, according to the study. Lower-calorie product sales in those categories increased 5.4% from 2009 to 2013 while higher-calorie product sales in those categories increased 12.7%.

Such categories as caloric beverages and pizzas contribute the most calories to children’s diets, according to the study.

“Supermarket chains have every reason to continue to increase their sales of lower-calorie items because it’s good for their bottom line,” said Victoria Brown, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funded the study. “They also need to make more progress to promote and sell foods and beverages popular with kids that are not just lower in calories but truly healthy, too.”

In supermarkets in “food deserts,” lower-calorie products accounted for 57.1% of total sales. Sales growth from 2009 to 2013 was 16.6% for lower-calorie products in supermarkets in “food desserts,” which compared to 16.2% of sales growth for higher-calorie products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as a census tract with a substantial share of residents who live in low-income areas that have low levels of access to a grocery store or a healthy, affordable food retail outlet.

In private label, lower-calorie product sales accounted for 56.4% of sales in 2013, which was up from 54.5% in 2009.

Supermarket chains could grow their sales of lower-calorie items by giving them more prominent shelf placement, highlighting them on in-store ads and displays, and selling more of them in check-out lanes, said Hank Cardello, lead author of the report and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

The Hudson Institute previously has done studies on lower-calorie product sales at restaurants and lower-calorie consumer product goods sales. Lower-calorie sales grew at faster rates for those two categories when compared to the supermarket study.

“Customers are looking for lower-calorie choices wherever they are,” Mr. Cardello said. “The good news is, supermarkets’ growth is being driven by these products, but compared to other sectors they’re still leaving money on the table. There is a tremendous opportunity to drive even more sales by focusing more on lower-calorie options.”
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